Tag Archives: artists

Pilgrimage

Song of the Lark160018_4152498

In the season and spirit of pilgrims…let’s look at how change is essential, and perspective is everything.


When I was twenty, I had a summer internship at the Art Institute of Chicago in their Prints and Drawings department. In the afternoons, we’d assist visitors who wanted to view certain works of art in the by-appointment public gallery, and in the morning…we had the place all to ourselves. There were five of us, all wanna-be one day art historians, and about as many PhD curators who were happy to stop what they were doing and answer questions. So our days began in a vault full of stacks and stacks of boxes in alphabetical order. You name it—if there was a famous artist who put writing implement to paper, they very probably had a piece in this collection. Rembrandt. Rothko. Mary Cassatt. Matisse. Michelangelo. DaVinci. It was absolute manna, so typical of Chicago’s long line of artistic patronage. They had Cezanne’s sketchbook, for Lord’s sake. With his grocery list and his son’s drawings in the margins. I loved those mornings.

I’d spent the last school year in Florence, Italy after all, feasting on the Renaissance. I was in a place of artistic glut. Dizzied by an embarrassment of riches in the way of visual art and inspiration. So it was no small mistake that in that year, I decided to write a novel. Just as an experiment. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t consider myself a writer. I considered myself an artistic person who wasn’t good enough to be an actual artist, so I’d be a champion of artists. It seemed more practical. More the sort of thing my North Shore parents and friends could relate to an support. More the sort of thing I’d been raised for. Maybe I’d work at Sotheby’s. Maybe I’d own an art gallery. Maybe I’d go back to school and get my Phd and become a museum curator. The only thing was…none of those prospects really appealed to me. Not when I was sitting in that vault deciding between Mary Cassatt’s aquatints and Matisse’s Jazz book.

Sometimes, I’d bring my journal in there and just write, feeling the hearts and passion play of those artists throbbing in my body. I was writing more and more, all about this girl who was a painter, living on an island in Greece, who had fled her life of higher education and societal expectation. The first line of that first book was “Claire sat on her patio wondering what to paint.” I was sitting in that vault, twenty, wondering who I really wanted to be. Who I really was. I felt misunderstood.  I felt trapped by my future. I was angry. And scared. And lucky for me, I was restless.

Each day at lunch, I would shove down a sandwich and head up to the main galleries of the museum, and I would wander them, memorizing their placement so that my emotions would surge in anticipation around each corner. I knew those galleries. I loved those galleries. But there was one painting that took my breath away, quite literally, every time. The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton. 

The image is of a peasant girl, barefoot on a dirt road, holding a sickle in her hand, looking skyward as a bird flies by, the sun low in the sky. I was that girl. My true self was stuck in the wheel society had carved for me. Only mine was in no way the life of the peasant. Quite the opposite. Somehow though, I related with this girl. I was made of dreams that quite possibly would never come true too. And, like the girl, I was going to do something about it. There was no way that girl would be on that road in that peasant’s skirt and bare feet much longer, holding that sickle in that fist. She was going places. Probably that very night she was going to run away from home and hop on a horse going west. I’d follow her. What kind of lie was I telling myself? I wasn’t the person behind the art. I was the artist. I had things I wanted to put down on paper. Only they were words. So I spent that summer writing that novel in every free speck of time I had. And I haven’t stopped since.  I’m hoping to produce a novel that will find its readers in the next little while.  Hard at work and in love with it.  As it should be.

Whenever I return to Chicago, I make a point, like a pilgrimage, of going to the Art Institute and standing before The Song of the Lark. It still takes my breath away; it still gives me chills. But the way I have come to look at it surprises me. Now I see something different in the girl. She did not leave. She’s still there. Another day in the field. She is not free. But the bird…the bird is free. And she’s raising that sickle, not against her lot in life, but against that bird. Against that freedom she will not know. Her fingers are drawn up like a fighter in both hands. Her mouth is slack like she’s been sucker punched. She is bound by that painting to which Jules Breton committed her. Where she once was my heroine, she now smacks as a willful slave. I am sorry for her, and I am sort of ashamed of her. 

That’s what art does when it’s true. It’s alive in the heart. And we make it our own. At least I do, with this painting of this girl. I have needed to. I have needed to see that I have grown out of rebellion and into freedom. She is my reminder. The last time I went, in fact, I could barely look her in the eye, for all her victimhood. She couldn’t leave. You can always leave, I wanted to shout. No matter what your lot is in life. You can. And coming from privilege doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. So much to lose… But in the end, I learned that I am not bound by the painting that was painted for me. I am only bound by myself. I left that bondage, and I wrote and I am not that girl in the painting. I am, dare I say, the lark.

The beauty of it is that I’m sure there is a twenty year old girl somewhere, probably in Chicago, who comes to this painting and sees her fight and sees her flight and realizes it, in part, because of this girl’s raised fist and sickle. And maybe she will get on the horse and get out of town. Or maybe she will stay and paint her own painting of herself right where she lives, because that is possible too. That is perhaps more than I had the guts for.

And yes, maybe she will return one day, the fight out of her, and relate more to the bird in the sky. I hope that for her. I hope that we grow in the seasons of our life and that in the deliberate act of moving through them, we find ourselves with new pilgrimages to take and new ways to see. Now back to the novel…

Go on your own Pilgrimage to Montana…  Find your voice…set it free! 

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2017

February 22-26 (one spot left)
June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 4-8
October 18-22

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Haven Health Series #6

These next two recipes were designed to refresh and root your creativity, leaving you invigorated and connected.

BhimbetkaJig_015

 

RootedLikeTrees_004

 

We are fully booked  for our 2016 Haven Writing Retreat calendar and now booking for 2017!

Next Haven: February 22-26

To schedule a phone call to learn more, go to the Contact Us button here.

Self-care.  That word scares me.  Maybe it scares you too.  It sounds hard.  It doesn’t have to be.  I invite us to start with some simple things.  Like a walk in the woods.  Like homemade bone soup that’s been simmering on the stove for twelve hours.  Like Epsom salt baths with eucalyptus and a Mexican cocoa candle.  Like essential oils of clary sage, frankincense, and wild orange by your bed.  Like Arnica salve, infused from the forest floor.  Like early mornings in bed with your journal.  And some very excellent beverages along the way that are as healing as they are delicious:  like ginger tea, like guava kombucha, like rooibos muddled with mint over ice.

These custom drinks are designed by master mixologist, Meagan Schmoll of Whitefish, Montana, to help your state of being in the way that you so desire.  And they are alcohol free.  

Enjoy!  yrs.  Laura

RootedLikeTrees_002

Recipe #1 - INVIGORATE

“Rooted Like Trees”

2 oz Green *Strong Tea*

1 oz Fresh Apple Juice

0.75 oz Fresh Pear Juice

0.50 oz Celery Stalk Juice

0.50 oz Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice

0.50 oz Maple Syrup Grade B

1/2 Capful of Apple Cider Vinegar

*Strong Tea*

3 tea bags or 9 grams of Green Tea 

8 oz Boiling water

Let steep for 20 Minutes

Remove Tea and let cool

RootedLikeTrees_001   Add ingredients into a pint glass.

   Add ice.

   Place shaker tin on top of pint glass giving it a firm tap.

   Turn it over so the tin is in your bottom hand and the pint glass is in      your top hand.

Shake it, shake it real good.

Strain from large tin into a tall ice filled some refer to this particular glass as a collins.

Garnish with an Apple Fan and Celery Stalk with leaves on it.

Enjoy and the invigorating feeling of Rooted Like Trees.

Recipe #2 - REFRESH

BhimbetkaJig_014

Bhimbetka Jig 

2 oz Peppermint *Strong Tea*

1 oz Fresh Watermelon Juice

0.5 oz Raw Amber Agave

0.25 oz Balsamic – Genesis Traditional Balsamic highly recommended.

6 Blueberrys muddled

Top Ginger Beer – Glacier Ginger Brewing highly recommended

*Strong Tea*

3 tea bags or 9 grams of Peppermint Tea 

8 oz Boiling water

Let steep for 20 Minutes

Remove Tea and let cool.

BhimbetkaJig_003

Place Blueberries and Agave in pint glass will do, Muddle a few times so the juice of the blue berries mixes with the agave. Add remaining ingredients.

Add ice.

Place shaker tin on top of pint glass giving it a firm tap.

Turn it over so the larger, shaker tin is in your bottom hand and the pint glass is in your top hand.

Shake what your mama gave you.

Strain from the pint glass into an ice filled Copper Mug & top with the Glacier Ginger Beer.

 

Pick a couple of Mint Sprigs, brush or slap them against your hand allowing the aroma to come out.

BhimbetkaJig_010

Place in the copper mug so you when taking sips your nose gets to be buried in it.

Smell, drink and feel refreshed with the Bhimbetka Jig!

 

Photo credits: Katy Bell

Drink credits:  Meagan Schmoll

Instagram @katybellkaty @lmschmoll #RaskolDrink #embellishpictures

Facebook: Katy Bronwyn Bell, Raskol Drink, Meagan Schmoll

 

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Haven Health Series #2

May this next recipe bring you tranquility, self-care, and a yummy elixir to inspire.

We have just a few more spaces left on our 2016 Haven Writing Retreat calendar!

September 21-25 (full)
October 5-9 (full)

October 19-23 (a few spaces left!!!)

To schedule a phone call to learn more about the retreat, go to the Contact Us button here.

It’s time to end the tortured artist paradigm.  I’m on a mission to change that into the empowered artist’s reality!  I think that art, namely writing since that’s my medium, should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness.  We all need healthy access to our self-expression and our artists show us the way.  We simply can’t have our artists sick and tortured any more.  We need them.  Artists are not looking at the world in ways that pit one against another.  We don’t look at the world in opposition, victory or loss.  We look at the world for what it is and depict it as truthfully as we can.  And in-so-doing, we hope to build bridges.  We hope to do as many South Africans have learned and find Umbuntu—love and compassion for all people.

Self-care:  That word scares me.  Maybe it scares you too.  It sounds hard.  It doesn’t have to be.  I invite us to start with some simple things.  Like a walk in the woods.  Like homemade bone soup that’s been simmering on the stove for twelve hours.  Like Epsom salt baths with eucalyptus and a Mexican cocoa candle.  Like essential oils of clary sage, frankincense, and wild orange by your bed.  Like Arnica salve, infused from the forest floor.  Like early mornings in bed with your journal.  And some very excellent beverages along the way that are as healing as they are delicious:  like ginger tea, like guava kombucha, like rooibos muddled with mint over ice.

Sure, maybe one day we can be Jesus in the desert, or Mandela in the prison cell, and strip ourselves of all earthly delights in order to truly swallow ourselves whole.  But for now, let’s be kind to ourselves, and meet ourselves with love, compassion, forgiveness, and little rituals that go a long way.

To read more from last week’s installment, click here:

For two weeks Haven Blog will feature custom drinks that you can make at home.  They are designed by master mixologist, Meagan Schmoll of Whitefish, Montana, to help your state of being in the way that you so desire.  And they are alcohol free.  Enjoy!  yrs.  Laura

ThePauliNoun_004

Drink #2: TRANQUILITY…

“The Pali Noun”  *served hot

2 oz Chamomile Lavender *Strong Tea*

1/2 a spoonful of Blackstrap Molasses

Orange Pigtail created with a channel knife or a twist expressed and curled into a tea cup.

 

Start the Kettle…

Create an orange pigtail or a twist and express it over your tea cup, allowing the oils to coat the inside.

ThePauliNoun_2

Add a half a spoon of Blackstrap Molasses

Place 3 chamomile lavender tea bags in.

Once the kettle is boiling pour roughly 8 oz 

Stir so the molasses blends with the tea

Sip and let the tranquility seep into your bones with the Pali Noun.

ThePauliNoun_3

Photo credits: Katy Bell

Drink credits:  Meagan Schmoll

Instagram @katybellkaty @lmschmoll #RaskolDrink #embellishpictures

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The Haven Health Series

downloaddownload (2)We have just a few more spaces left on our 2016 Haven Writing Retreat calendar!

September 21-25 (one space left)
October 5-9 (spaces left)
October 19-23 (spaces left)

To schedule a phone call to learn more about the retreat, go to the Contact Us button here.

There was a time when the tortured artist life looked highly appealing to me.  It all began with an intense aversion to balls.  I wasn’t interested in balls on any level and every institution of my life worshiped them.  Balls brought with them competition.  I was too sensitive for competition.  Too many hurt feelings.  Too much pressure and fabricated adversity.  Life was full of enough strife—why create more?  I wanted connection and togetherness.  I always wondered how an orb, like the moon, like the sun and the planets, when dropped into human hands, turns so immediately into opposition, clash, winning and losing.  So I hid in the Art Room.

The Art Room was full of exotic things like nude figure drawings pinned haphazardly to the bulletin board like it was no big deal, like there was no dress code, like you could say the word Sex and no one would notice.  And all those older girls with the long hair and tapestry skirts.  And the smell of batik wax.  And the endless possibility of paint and an empty palette, and wet clay on a wheel.  I claimed the Art Room as my home as a young girl, and in many ways, have never left.

The Art Room for me, is a moveable feast.  In every rental I had over the years, I covered the walls with art and every horizontal surface with things from nature—bones, antlers, feathers, rocks, shells, bee hives, coral.  When I finally built a home, it was a farmhouse full of small rooms.  I wanted to be like Anais Nin—a different color for every room, a different mood as you wandered the house for inspiration.  Even on the road, even in a chain hotel, I lay my journal next to my bed, a small candle, some essential oils, a heart-shaped stone.  On a recent trip to Portland a friend announced to her husband, “This woman travels with Frankincense!” And that was in Portland.

I do this because I am a deeply sensitive human being.  I didn’t understand it until my forties.  I didn’t understand why people were always telling me I was too emotional, too sensitive.  Couldn’t take a joke.  Cried too easily.  I started to notice that I’d often laugh before the punchline.  I started to take stock at how regularly I hear, “How did you know I was going to say that?”  I’m not one to label myself, so I won’t try here.  I’m just sensitive, that’s all.  And sometimes being sensitive can make the world too hard to bear.  Such is the gift and all-too-often, the plight of the artist.

Enter:  the tortured artist paradigm.  I’m on a mission to change that into the empowered artist’s reality!  I think that art, namely writing since that’s my medium, should be up there with diet and exercise in the realm of preventative wellness.  We all need healthy access to our self-expression and our artists show us the way.  We simply can’t have our artists sick and tortured any more.  We need them.  Artists are not looking at the world in ways that pit one against another.  We don’t look at the world in opposition, victory or loss.  We look at the world for what it is and depict it as truthfully as we can.  And in-so-doing, we hope to build bridges.  We hope to do as many South Africans have learned and find Umbuntu—love and compassion for all people.

This may shock you:
Beethoven reportedly drank wine about as often as he wrote music.  Stephen King doesn’t remember writing Cujo.  Even Maya Angelou loved her sherry.  Among the many other artists who have used drugs, alcohol or other substances are Aldous Huxley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Allen Ginsberg, Marguerite Duras, composer Modest Musorgski, Elizabeth Bishop, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote.

They all were quite likely deeply sensitive people who didn’t know how to handle all that they perceived.  So they went into F**k It mode.  I know F**k It mode well.  People don’t have a lot of tolerance for it.  They think it’s an affront on them.  They think it’s a lack of self-control.  They think that it’s weak.  When in reality, it is an inability to know what to do with all those feelings.  All that empathy.  Booze and drugs stop the empathy.  At least that’s the illusion.  Because the truth is, I’ve never cried harder than when I’ve had too much to drink.  Those have been my personal darkest nights of the soul.

And it’s not just artists.  It’s anyone who feels deeply, as a rule.

So if we’re empowering ourselves as the deeply feeling people that we are, what if we were to look at it like when we are feeling, without blocking that flow, we are strong!  We are complete!  Those feelings can’t take us down!  It’s the fear of them which is the problem.  And an altered mind doesn’t give us all the fortification we need to fight the fear.  Or, as I like to think instead, to love that fear into submission.

So how do we break old behavioral patterns, how do we train ourselves out of old thought patterns which find us in a place of suffering, woe, and even self-harm, self-loathing, or even self-violence?  My way is gentle and luxuriant.  Yes, it has to do with the awareness that we even have these patterns in the first place.  But why not meet ourselves in this place with radical self-care in the most loving and gentle way…and easy?

Self-care.  That word scares me.  Maybe it scares you too.  It sounds hard.  It doesn’t have to be.  I invite us to start with some simple things.  Like a walk in the woods.  Like homemade bone soup that’s been simmering on the stove for twelve hours.  Like Epsom salt baths with eucalyptus and a Mexican cocoa candle.  Like essential oils of clary sage, frankincense, and wild orange by your bed.  Like Arnica salve, infused from the forest floor.  Like early mornings in bed with your journal.  And some very excellent beverages along the way that are as healing as they are delicious:  like ginger tea, like guava kombucha, like rooibos muddled with mint over ice.

Sure, maybe one day we can be Jesus in the desert, or Mandela in the prison cell, and strip ourselves of all earthly delights in order to truly swallow ourselves whole.  But for now, let’s be kind to ourselves, and meet ourselves with love, compassion, forgiveness, and little rituals that go a long way.

For two weeks Haven Blog will feature custom drinks that you can make at home.  They are designed by master mixologist, Meagan Schmoll of Whitefish, Montana, to help your state of being in the way that you so desire.  And they are alcohol free.  Enjoy!  yrs.  Laura

OldLetter_002

Drink #1:  CALM…

“The Old Letter” 

2 oz Rooibos *Strong Tea*

1 oz *Honey pumpkin*

1 oz Almond Milk (unsweetened)

1 pinch kosher salt

10 Basil Leaves

 

*Strong Tea*

3 tea bags or 9 grams of Darjeeling Tea 

8 oz Boiling water

Let steep for 20 Minutes

Remove Tea and let cool

*Honey Pumpkin*

Equal Parts Clover Honey & Canned Pumpkin

Mix until it becomes a smooth puree.

Muddle Basil and Honey Pumpkin in a mixing glass

When muddling firmly press, but try not to tear the leaves of the basil this will add the essence of basil but not the bitterness from the leaves Tannins.

Add remaining ingredients and Ice

Place shaker tin on top of pint glass giving it a firm tap.

Turn it over so the tin is in your bottom hand and the pint glass is in your top hand.

Shakedownload (8)

Strain from the pint glass into a Tea Cup of your Choice.

Pick out a basil sprig with enough of the stem so it can sit in the teacup. Lightly slap it against your hand to releases the basil aroma then place it on the side of the tea cup, leaves over the edge, as if it is sitting in a tub or spa soaking in the sun

Sip and enjoy the calming effects of the Old Letter. 

 

Photo credits: Katy Bell

Drink credits:  Meagan Schmoll

Instagram @katybellkaty @lmschmoll #RaskolDrink #embellishpictures

Facebook: Katy Bronwyn Bell, Raskol Drink, Meagan Schmoll

 

 

 

 

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Franny the Fish (a love song)

FRANNY THE FISH by Laura Munson

(Written when I was 24 years old. Living in Seattle. Upon the occasion of my goldfish, Franny’s, impending death.)

Goes a little something like this: (finger picked. Melancholy. A bit of schtick, but not too much.  Think “tortured” artist.  I used to sing this to my kids until they were old enough to say, “ENOUGH!  STOP THE INSANITY.”  Enjoy.)

 

Cmaj7

I’m just sitting here

Am

Watching my goldfish die

Am7                                     D

Sipping on a nice cold beer.

 

Cmaj7

Now she lies upon her side,

Am

At the top of her fish bowl

Am7                                                       G

Screaming silent pleas to a phony tide.

 

D                   G

Poor Franny

D                                                    G

Fighting for the life inside a bowl

D                                                     G

Maybe if you let yourself slip over

D7                                                      G

You’ll find your very pretty fish soul.

 

D                                               G

Not to say that your life is over

D                                                     G

But I must admit it looks pretty grim

D                                                                     G

When you’re floating sideways on the water

D7                                                     G

And it’s all that you can do to swim.

 

Cmaj7

Suddenly she sees herself

Am

In the glass, her eyes half mast

Am7                                                        D

And flaps a prideful fin in token health.

 

Cmaj7

Oh I could tap to show I’m here

Am

Oh Franny I’m sorry

Am7                                                             G

That I am just another outside force of fear.

 

D                                                             G

Frankly I must tell you one thing darlin’

D                                                  G

There’s no point in being a heroine

D                                                              G

You’re not salmon whale or even marlin

D7                                                                         G

You’re a bourgeois fish outside your bowl or in.

 

D                                                                           G

So with these last mournful chords I leave you

D                                                    G

Then a tear and a prayerful hush

D                                                                         G

I’ll scoop you up and help you to the next life

D7                                                  G

Drop you in the toilet…and flush.

 

D                                                            G

Oh a eulogy for you my dear fish Franny.

D                                                                G

Your plight seems like my own dim destiny

D                                                                         G

But instead of going with you down the sewer

D7                                                    G  (big finish!)

I go three times a week for therapy!

 

(…and  just as I was about to flush her, she sprang alive and lived another six months. Zooey didn’t last very long after her parting, his heart being broken.)

 

 

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Writers: Q&A with editor Kim Ludlow

Kim at work in New York City. That's her dog, Dex on her screensaver...

Q&A with Kim Ludlow, editor and founder of Ludlow Editorial.

 

What excites you about book editing?

I love finding the right language for an idea or feeling.  I love organizing and reorganizing the puzzle pieces of a story to see how structure changes the experience. It starts with intention. In conversation, I listen for what people are trying to communicate; on the page, I look for clues to what drives the writer to tell her story.  Recognizing these intentions honors the writer, and opens the door to understanding the life of the story.  For me, the mystery of why we tell stories and the challenge of how we tell stories is a perfect marriage of the heart and mind.

 

What led you to provide this service for people?

Honestly, the fact that I love doing it is one thing.  The fact that my peers consider me very good at it inspires me to offer it up as a service.

 

You are one of the most intuitive editors I’ve worked with.  Tell me about how intuition plays out in your work with writers.

Much like what excites me about the process, when I read someone’s work I concentrate on what the writer is trying to say. I let my instincts respond first to the words, then to what I hear behind them. Whether I’m thinking about James Joyce, or a new writer’s first draft, the important question is “what is this writer trying to communicate?”  Whether the piece achieves the writer’s goals at that moment or not, the question remains the same.

 

What are some of the most common pitfalls writers face?

I find that writers (experienced and not) often struggle with the same problems.  Some of them are: losing the tension and structure of the story, have an unclear narrative point of view, undeveloped characters, pacing, and unnatural dialogue.  It’s often a good idea to read your work out loud to yourself.  It’s amazing what you can hear that you don’t recognize on the page.

 

Where do you find writers often get stuck in their work?

This is as varied as the writers who write.  It’s often a question of story structure and what makes the story feel “alive.”   It’s easy to get bogged down in something that doesn’t move the story along, or that the writer is attached to, but doesn’t belong.

 

How do you help a writer get unstuck?

I tend to dig into the sentences and paragraphs fairly deeply for content, and use examples in the text to show what is and isn’t working and why.  Then I describe the larger context of the story and how those examples hinder or help the author’s intention.

 

What are some powerful questions you can give people who are considering writing a book or are already at work on one?

Have you ever read a story like the one you want to tell?  How is your story different?

What is the most important event in the story?  When does that event take place in the story’s timeline?

Know where your narrator is in time.  Is she in the middle of the story (she knows some things, but not others).  Is he at the end looking back?  How far away from the events is he?

 

When is it time to hire someone to help you?

I think my skills are best applied to a working draft (short story, opening chapter, 1st draft of a script).   I can always tell someone if I like their idea or not, but it’s once the idea starts to take shape that the constructive questions and discussions can begin.

 

Any other advice you can offer writers?

Read.  Read.  Read.
Know the genre you’re working in.
Know how things are usually done so that you can take advantage of the established form, or know why you do it differently.  If you’ve never written a story before, look at some of the books on basic story structure and the tools of story-telling available to you.  Then write.  And write.  And rewrite.

Thank you, Kim!  Kim can be contacted at her website and to those of you looking for editing help, I strongly recommend her services.

yrs.

Laura

 

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A Book’s Life


This is a writer’s dream– to witness one of his or her books being or having been devoured. Dog-eared. Bloated from a bath-tub session. Coffee stains. Red wine stains. Tear stains.

Today I received this gift in the mail. It’s a photo of my book, loved and worn by a faithful reader. I really do believe that the book takes on a life of its own. I really do believe that ultimately it’s between the book and the reader.

People ask me all the time what it’s like to have written a memoir about something so deeply personal.  My answer is this:  if you write with compassion and responsibility, you can write about anything.  People are hungry for heart language.  People want to know they’re not alone.  That is a writer’s job.  This weekend I’ll be teaching a memoir writing workshop in Montana for the Authors of the Flathead.  The truth is, no one can really show you how to write your truth.  To me it’s about learning how to get out of your own way by asking powerful questions.  It’s about understanding the sacred space of creation.  You sit in your quiet room somewhere and you release the work with the intention that it will help someone out there.  That it will land in someone’s lap and heart.  That you will give them cause to pause.  Dog-ear.  Underline.  Join in the dance of the collective We.

So for all you writers out there, look deeply at this photo.  You are doing important work in the language of heart.  Your words matter.  Believe in your book.  It wants you to.

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Glee: (Where were you all my life?)

 

Every so often, in the course of my life, someone has looked at me sideways and said these helpful words: “What is WRONG with you?” Ever been asked that question? There really isn’t an answer to it because it’s not a question. It’s a judgment, an insult, an attack. But the other night, I was lying in bed late night watching TV and came across the movie All That Jazz with Roy Scheider playing the destructive dance legend Bob Fosse. I got a warm cozy feeling and propped up in bed to enjoy a few hours of pure bliss, as I’d LOVED that movie as a kid. My parents took me to see it. I had the soundtrack and knew every word to every song– used to dance around my bedroom to the music. This was going to be a treat.

But by the end of the movie I was in a state of shock. I did quick math: Please tell me it didn’t come out until at least 1982. When I would have been 16-ish. When I would have been able to process the idea of a womanizing/drug addicted/artist being courted by death and gyrating his way through his final days with a cigarette in his mouth. The credits rolled. 1979. I was thirteen when I fell in love with that movie.

I remember thinking it was the most profound expression of what I felt deep inside me, I just didn’t know what it was yet. I cried at the end in that movie theater. My parents thought it was because I was traumatized by it and apologized for taking me to see it in the first place. “Are you kidding me? I LOVED it,” I said. If I had known how to say, Those are my people I would have. If they’d been less kind, they might have said, What’s wrong with you? But I’m pretty sure I saw it in their eyes.

Lying there in my bed the other night, a whole host of questions got answered. Old ones. Like, “When did I know I was an artist?” “With no artists in my family, how did I get my footing, my inspiration, and most importantly, PERMISSION?” You see, as a thirteen year old, I wasn’t thinking about the sexual nature of Fosse’s choreography or that drugs and cigarettes were bad for you or that his moral compass was wonky. I was feeling his passion for living and the tragedy that he had to leave his art. I was feeling the power of creativity working in human flesh. Dying human flesh. I was realizing that I had work to do and had better get started pronto. I had no interest in being a dancer, but I understood what was behind the dancing. I had it too. And I had it bad. I just didn’t know what my IT was.

The movie FAME didn’t help. I was in a full sweat the whole time. It was like a Baptist spiritual revival. I was a believer. The artist’s life was for me. I was a misfit in mainstream society. I needed to find my people. But where? It was 1980. I was fourteen. I was learning how to play tennis. I hated tennis. I wanted to go to the FAME school. I wanted to sing in the streets and dance on cafeteria tables and do monologues on a stage and have openly gay friends.

But it was Flashdance that put me over the edge. I cried through the whole thing. I raced home and opened my journal and wrote the quote “If you lose your dream, you’re dead.” I was crying, because I knew what was at stake, but I didn’t know what my dream was. I had to figure it out. Time was fleeting. It was 1983. I was seventeen. I thought maybe I was born to act and was in as many plays as possible. But acting wasn’t exactly “it.” I loved to sing too and I got a guitar and wrote some songs, but that wasn’t exactly “it” either. I felt desperate. Which is the perfect mood in which to enter college.

If Glee had been on TV when I was growing up, I would have watched it addictively. Thank goodness for people like me, that Glee has arrived. Lives will be saved. I am adamant about this. The artist does not have to be alone. We do not have to be misfits. And most important, we do not have to be tortured. The paradigm can change. I remember seeing the original Star is Born when we got a VHS, lying on the bean bag chair in the basement in the dark, weeping. So tragic. The older movie star helping the young singer/actress played by Judy Garland find fame, as his own career goes down the tank in a puddle of alcohol. I didn’t want my passion to be my tragedy; my bondage. I wanted my passion to be my joy. My bliss. My freedom. MY GLEE!  That’s the brilliance of the show:  it upholds the misfits and makes them into icons!

When I finally figured out I was a writer, it was 1988. I was twenty-one. Nine years from All That Jazz. Nine important foundational years. I dearly wish I’d had back-up from the world that the gleeful artist’s life is possible. Moreover, that artists are important, essential, as is their art—not just extra-curricular folly. To see that the artist is part of the realm of “normal.” No, the artist did NOT have to be tortured. The artist could live in a society that upheld her. But that’s not the message I got growing up from the institutions and people around me (even though I won the art, speaking, writing, and drama awards, I still felt fringe). I didn’t know yet how to take a stand for my passion. I didn’t have shows like Glee mirroring my hopes and dreams and a pop-culture going crazy for it.

By and by, I found my “it.” And I have found my glee with my “it.” I write.

Like Cynthia Ozik said, “I wanted to use what I was, to be what I was born to be—not to have a “career,” but to be that straightforward obvious unmistakable animal, a writer.”

To anyone out there who can relate, I say: welcome sister/brother. We don’t have to bleed. We can laugh and play. Thank you to the creators of Glee for helping.

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When Amazon and Book Scan Had a Baby

I’m a bit afraid to write this post, the way someone who fears the mafia is afraid.  But I have to give voice to something that has seared the last year of my life with a fair amount of ludicrousy.  It’s just too juicy not to share.  At the risk of having big time New York editors running at me with sharpened pencils and a slurry of sticky notes, I have to tell you:  published authors don’t have access to their book sales.  Not more than twice a year when the royalties reports come.  My book was published in April and I didn’t see that report until November.  Isn’t that stunning news?

So how are you to plan accordingly, you might ask?  How are you to know where your hot markets are?  How are you to weigh whether it’s worth it financially to choose the Birmingham, Alabama library request over the one in St. Louis?  It’s an exact science:  Eeny rock meeny paper miney flip a coin scissors.  I’m sure that this isn’t the publishing industry’s fault.  I mean they have troubles enough in the looming fact that the future might very well only hold digital books, never mind digital people holding those digital books, but that’s another story.  Or is it.

All I know is that you can’t fly out of the small town airport where I live for less than around $400.00, and that’s a steal.  Usually it’s more like $800.00.  And so is it worth it to fly myself to Birmingham, leaving my husband and small children, missing soccer and baseball games and school plays?  I don’t know.  You tell me.  Do people in Birmingham read a lot?  Or do people in St. Louis read more?  Eeny meeny.  And there’s more to this puzzle because things tend to happen to the author when a certain amount of books have been sold.  Big things that might involve a pay check and help you budget things like Christmas, and Spring Break and if either are going to involve expenditures.

Don’t get me wrong—my editor and my publicity team are my dream team.  I adore them.  They’d never put me in cement boots and throw me into the Hudson.  They bent over backwards to tour me around the country and land me spots on national TV and everywhere they possibly could.  And they’re in the process of doing it all over again for the paperback release in a few weeks.  This is not about them.  But it’s about somebody, and just who that somebody is, I’m not sure.  It’s a system that doesn’t seem to work, not when it comes to the lowly writer as a business woman.  Any businessperson should be able to see sales reports to judge how to proceed in peddling what she’s peddling, shouldn’t they?  Especially after the big launch.  Sure there are amazing salespeople out there working for the effort, but the writer can’t contact them.  It’s a guessing game.  Maybe they’re afraid the hair-brained blundering writer might mess it up somehow.  Kind of like how they don’t let you visit your kid at camp unless it’s parent’s weekend.  I honestly don’t know.  But I better not wake up with a horse head in my bed, that’s all I’m sayin’.

And then…this winter…all this changed, thanks, I think, to Amazon.  Amazon might be getting the biggest writerly blow job ever, and it was just in time for the holidays, because…wait for it…well I’ll take you through the door a different way.  The way my mother would want me to.  Politely:

As a writer of a recently published book, you never know what’s going to be in your email in-box in the morning.  Is your UK publisher wondering if you like the cover art they’ve chosen?  Is noon an okay time for a journalist from Tel Aviv to do a phone interview with you?  Would you be willing to do a Skype video call with a book group north of Boston?  Could you suggest a good therapist for a fan’s husband in Tulsa?  Could you send signed copies of your book to your mother’s bridge club friend’s daughter and all her friends in San Diego?  Could you stop bothering your publicist about the paperback book tour?  (click to see my upcoming events and come say hi!)  Could you sign books at the local Costco this Sunday?

“Sure” is the answer.  Especially to the last one, because you’ll need to stop by Costco anyway since that’s where you buy your books since you can’t afford to buy them for $24.95 and if you use your author’s discount with your publisher, it doesn’t count as a sold book and you need books counted since you don’t make any royalties until your advance is paid back in book sales.  And not at $24.95.  It’s a small PERCENTAGE of the retail price that goes back into the pot.  Get it?  (Somebody asked me recently if I was a millionaire, now that I have a book that landed on the NYT best-seller list.  The answer is no.  I’m still trying to get my health insurance back and crawl out of credit card debt!)  Sold books steer the next few years of your life in more ways than you can write about here without ending up with that horse head in your bed, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it.

Suffice it to say that there are all sorts of things I didn’t know about being a published author prior to this experience, and even more things I don’t know after the experience.  It’s been a year of these findings for me.  But the biggest surprise is this whole sales issue.  Until Amazon somehow teamed up with Book Scan and sent me a little email one fine winter morning that said, “To add to your holiday cheer, we’ve added several new features related to your books’ sales on our new Sales Info tab.”  And lo, with a simple click I was dragging my cursor over the continental US seeing that, yes, 46 of my books sold in New York City last week.  And 14 in Seattle.  And one in Milwaukee, bless that person’s soul.  And, oh look, zero in Wichita.   Well that’s okay.  We love you anyway, Wichita.  Maybe I need to fly on over and speak at your library.  If you’ll have me.

And as much as some writers think this is a cause for Zanax, I think it’s one of the best gifts a published writer could get.  So, thank you, Amazon and Book Scan.  But no, I still refuse to buy a Kindle.

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Pilgrimage

SONG OF THE LARK by Laura Munson
When I was twenty, I had a summer internship at the Art Institute of Chicago in their Prints and Drawings department. In the afternoons, we’d assist visitors who wanted to view certain works of art in the by-appointment public gallery, and in the morning…we had the place all to ourselves. There were five of us, all wanna-be one day art historians, and about as many Phd curators who were happy to stop what they were doing and answer questions. So our days began in a vault full of stacks and stacks of boxes in alphabetical order. You name it—if there was a famous artist who put writing implement to paper, they very probably had a piece in this collection. Rembrandt. Rothko. Mary Cassatt. Matisse. Michelangelo. DaVinci. It was absolute manna, so typical of Chicago’s long line of artistic patronage. They had Cezanne’s sketchbook, for Lord’s sake. With his grocery list and his son’s drawings in the margins. I loved those mornings.

I’d spent the last school year in Florence, Italy after all, feasting on the Renaissance. I was in a place of artistic glut. Dizzied by an embarrassment of riches in the way of visual art and inspiration. So it was no small mistake that in that year, I decided to write a novel. Just as an experiment. I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t consider myself a writer. I considered myself an artistic person who wasn’t good enough to be an actual artist, so I’d be a champion of artists. It seemed more practical. More the sort of thing my North Shore parents and friends could relate to. More the sort of thing I’d been raised for. Maybe I’d work at Sotheby’s. Maybe I’d own an art gallery. Maybe I’d go back to school and get my Phd and become a museum curator. The only thing was…none of those prospects really appealed to me. Not when I was sitting in that vault deciding between Mary Cassatt’s aquatints and Matisse’s Jazz book.

Sometimes, I’d bring my journal in there and just write, feeling the hearts and passion play of those artists throbbing in my body. I was writing more and more, all about this girl who was a painter, living on an island in Greece, who had fled her life of higher education and societal expectation. The first line of that first book was “Claire sat on her patio wondering what to paint.” I was sitting in that vault, twenty, wondering who I really wanted to be. Who I really was. I felt trapped by my future. I was angry. And lucky for me, I was restless.

Each day at lunch, I would shove down a sandwich and head up to the main galleries of the museum, and I would wander them, memorizing their placement so that my emotions would surge in anticipation around each corner. I knew those galleries. I loved those galleries. But there was one painting that took my breath away, quite literally, every time. The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton.

The image is of a peasant girl, barefoot on a dirt road, holding a sickle in her hand, looking skyward as a bird flies by, the sun low in the sky. I was that girl. My true self was stuck in the wheel society had carved for me. Only mine was in no way the life of the peasant. Quite the opposite. Somehow though, I related with this girl. I was made of dreams that quite possibly would never come true too. And, like the girl, I was going to do something about it. There was no way that girl would be on that road in that peasant’s skirt and bare feet much longer, holding that sickle in that fist. She was going places. Probably that very night she was going to run away from home and hop on a horse going west. I’d follow her. What kind of lie was I telling myself? I wasn’t the person behind the art. I was the artist. I had things I wanted to put down on paper. Only they were words. So I spent that summer writing that novel in every free speck of time I had. And I haven’t stopped since.

Whenever I return to Chicago, I make a point, like a pilgrimage, of going to the Art Institute and standing before The Song of the Lark. It still takes my breath away; it still gives me chills. But the way I have come to look at it surprises me. Now I see something different in the girl. She did not leave. She’s still there. Another day in the field. She is not free. But the bird…the bird is free. And she’s raising that sickle, not against her lot in life, but against that bird. Against that freedom she will not know. Her fingers are drawn up like a fighter in both hands. Her mouth is slack like she’s been sucker punched. She is bound by that painting to which Jules Breton committed her. Where she once was my heroine, she now smacks as a willful slave. I am sorry for her, and I am sort of ashamed of her.

That’s what art does when it’s true. It’s alive in the heart. And we make it our own. At least I do, with this painting of this girl. I have needed to. I have needed to see that I have grown out of rebellion and into freedom. She is my reminder. The last time I went, in fact, I could barely look her in the eye, for all her victimhood. She couldn’t leave. You can always leave, I wanted to shout. No matter what your lot is in life. You can. And coming from privilege doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. So much to lose… But in the end, I learned that I am not bound by the painting that was painted for me. I am only bound by myself. I left that bondage, and I wrote and I am not that girl in the painting. I am, dare I say, the lark.

The beauty of it is that I’m sure there is a twenty year old girl somewhere, probably in Chicago, who comes to this painting and sees her fight and sees her flight and realizes it, in part, because of this girl’s raised fist and sickle. And maybe she will get on the horse and get out of town. Or maybe she will stay and paint her own painting of herself right where she lives, because that is possible too. That is perhaps more than I had the guts for.

And yes, maybe she will return one day, the fight out of her, and relate more to the bird in the sky. I hope that for her. I hope that we grow in the seasons of our life and that in the deliberate act of moving through them, we find ourselves with new pilgrimages to take and new ways to see.


Noah Riskin is a new friend of mine. He’s a writer and a photographer, a former national and international champion gymnast, an MIT teacher, and much more. He too knows what it is to take a stand for himself and to throw himself, in his case, truly out in the wilderness to find his way. And he too knows this very painting. Please enjoy his beautiful story and images. And may you be inspired to take your own pilgrimages. Maybe you already have, and maybe you want to help inspire others to do the same. I’d love to hear about them at THESE HERE HILLS. Yrs. Laura

PILGRIMAGE By Noah Riskin

“Pilgrimage to the place of the wise is to find escape from the flame of separateness.”
–Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

I remember writing down the dream; the thrill and fear of what it meant as I sat inside the glow of a candle, 3AM. Somewhere on one of these shelves sits that journal. And, closing my eyes, I can still see the dream–at least the heart of it: I’m on a mountaintop. Not a snowcapped peak but a jagged outcropping of rock bordered by snow, high above tree line and domed by a pale blue sky. She is next to me; a young, ruddy-faced woman with fire-red hair and cerulean eyes. She is showing me how to make art straight from the earth.

I sat with this the rest of the night.
And, finally, after freefalling in my life for many months, I knew exactly what to do.

~

Now, twenty years forward, and for all of the work, travel and teaching positions
–to be honest,
I’ve lost my way.

~

At that time, life was relatively simple and so I doubled up on work (some welding and bread baking) and saved my pennies. I bought a sky-blue ‘78 VW minibus with camper top and a richly illustrated mechanics guide. In the weeks that followed I overhauled the engine and worked the interior into a living space/studio on wheels. The day before I left, I filled Mason jars with millet, red beans and rice and slipped them into compartments I’d built beneath the seat that folded-out as my bed. I filed painting canvases into a slotted carrier lashed atop the bus and filled the riggings inside with all of my gear. Early September I rolled out of the driveway, picked up the Mass. Pike and headed west.

Cocksure, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

That first night I made it as far as upstate New York. And, sometime after dark and a long fumbling with the camp stove, I lay curled-up in the bus on the edge of a Walgreens parking lot, cold and slowly losing it to a growing terror. The howl of a distant train, big rig thunder from the highway, a sickly cast of orange light that edged the lot and bus–what had I done? So, I sat there in the dark behind the wheel and pulled a pack of Camels as I decided what to do. I wasn’t going back to sleep. And, somehow, I wasn’t going back to Boston. With Store 24 coffee between my legs, I drove on into the predawn chill.

From here things moved faster:

Picture sky-blue minibus running long stretch of highway across western plains…
See sky-blue bus scampering distant mountain ridge,
zigzagging switchbacks,
winding river valley,
wandering lost roads…

Three weeks in and I still had no idea what I was doing. But, I knew how I might find out. It went like this: I’d choose some faraway place on the map and drive there on roads that feathered away, dirt to brush. I’d pick a place to park, make camp and then spend the evening planning hikes. Backpack loaded and a little nervous, I’d head out early morning hoping for some spot that would speak to me, a place to make the work like in the dream. Sometimes I’d leave the bus for a few days and camp on-site. Other times I’d hike to and fro, dawn and dusk, as if going to work. At night I’d sit in my union suit, boots and hat with a shot of whiskey, book and bowl of rice, the curtained camper lit round by a candle lantern. What I learned was that the places did, in fact, tell me what to do. And soon, I was making the work.

Using a heavy string I floated stones over a glacial lake. I climbed trees and suspended quartz pieces in a wave marking sunrise. I painted straight from the desert floor and walked spiral meditations in Colorado sand dunes. I made such pieces over two or three days, photographed them and then left things as found. So unfolded a collection of extraordinary moments, some inspired and some an insult to the species as I plummeted from a treetop, careened down a snow covered pass in a bus without brakes and jumped out of the camper into a stand of bison just the morning after seriously pissing-off a rattlesnake. The list goes on.

A few months later, while wandering through some small town, Wyoming after weeks in the bush, I rounded a corner and came face to face with a wild-haired and grisly version of me in a shop window so feral it scared me. But, I saw something else too; something she’d taught me. I was doing it. I was stepping into the world–into the present, naked as could be and, somehow, making myself whole. I could feel it.

Months later still, after looping the north and southwest chasing the warmer weather, I was in Chicago. I remember slipping into the bathroom for a shot of minibus-trip whiskey before the Art Institute interview. There I sat in a small office showing the Department Head slide after slide of my fieldwork. When he tired of me talking the cryptic nonsense I thought necessary to make it into graduate school, he stopped me with a simple question: Why? We both sat there in the silence until I muttered the only thing I could mutter: I told him about the dream and how “…it’s what I had to do.”

Weeks later, back in Boston, I was scrubbing around a toilet when my mother called. An envelope had arrived from the Art Institute. Should (could) they open it? And so, we listened together to hear that I’d won a full scholarship.

The trip continued on.

It was during my initial few weeks at the Institute, walking the stone-dense halls of the museum that I first stood before the painting. In The Song of the Lark by Jules Breton a peasant girl stands barefoot in a field at sunrise. She’s clutching a sickle and is utterly seized by the bird’s call. And, there I stood, clutching a sketchbook and utterly seized by the sight of her.

It was then that I understood a little something about the work I’d done; a little something about the work we all must do…

Now, cloistered atop a brownstone with pen and paper upon a mountain of past, I feel like I’ve lost my way. Everyday I get up at dawn and work the fields. But, the lark;
I think she’s flown away.

It’s not about going back. It’s not about finding another minibus and tracing the same route. Life doesn’t work that way. Besides, there’s something wrong if you’re not tearing it up a little wild in the world at 25. And, there’s something wrong if you’re still doing it at 45.

It’s more complicated now.

Or, perhaps,
it’s really very simple.

Later, walking to the store in search of some dinner, I watched, listened a little more closely to the world for some small hint of my future self.

BIO: Artist, educator and writer; identical twin and former national and international champion gymnast, Noah Riskin lives and works in Brookline, MA and is currently finishing his first book, The Art of Falling: Coming Back to Earth in Search of One’s Self.

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